We are delighted to have this opportunity to contribute to MLH’s current forum of Teacher Talk. Like many of our colleagues, we were drawn to ELT by our passion both for exploring various cultures and for teaching reading and writing to a diverse student body. We met as young, inexperienced teachers in a girls’ public high school in New York City. Many of our students were from immigrant backgrounds. Their parents favored an all-girls environment for their daughters. We still recall with chuckles a librarian directed us to “quiet down or leave” as we excitedly collaborated on a reading apparatus for Dickens’ Great Expectations. There are fewer single sex schools in New York City now and Dickens may have a weaker foothold in the English curriculum, but for us excitement still counts.
With postgraduate degrees in English literature and Education, we entered college teaching at the City University of New York and eventually became directors of programs in Reading and ELT. We continued to work together developing materials that would bring our diverse students (as many as ten first languages in one classroom) to love books and reflect on their reading.
A fortuitous connection with a Japanese editor led to our writing for Macmillan LanguageHouse, Tokyo. Our approach has been guided by the admonitions of two great writers. The American poet Walt Whitman wrote that “Reading is not done half asleep but [is] an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; readers must do something for themselves, be on the alert, must themselves construct the poem, the argument, history, essay, story ….” England’s Earl of Chesterfield recommended that readers “use a method… Let reading be consistent and thematic, not fragmented into scraps of different subjects.” For twenty years, these ideals have influenced our writing of The Powerful Reader, a series of thematically organized textbooks for Japanese postsecondary/college students.
Each The Powerful Reader Basic Second Edition book has twelve chapters (a semester’s worth) containing four units. Each unit has three thematically related reading selections of interest and significance for educated young people. We select topics that we enjoy researching and that we believe will appeal to the teachers and students who use our books.
The original texts (and their revised editions) are written at three levels: Basic, Intermediate and High Intermediate. The use of thematically related subjects allows for recycling concepts and vocabulary at increasingly more rigorous stages. Chapter formats are fairly uniform. The Visuals introducing and illustrating the Reading Selections, provide Japanese students a comfortable basis for exchanging ideas.
Close questioning of text through a variety of exercises takes students from locating key points and supporting details to “reading between the lines,” making inferences and drawing conclusions. Questions and tasks are useful prompts for pair/group work and speaking/writing as each teacher may find useful. The Teacher’s Manual includes additional Vocabulary exercises, Answer Keys, and Sample Responses to open-ended questions.
Our newest addition to the series is The Powerful Reader Basic Second Edition. It incorporates several selections from its predecessor; all are revised and updated. For example, “The East Dresses the West,” a historical tracing of fashion in an earlier edition, is now “Fashion Fusion: East and West.” It focuses on the European Art Deco influence on Japanese design in the 1930s. Conversely, our updated version of “Impressionism: Beauty Has No Borders” emphasizes the influence of Japanese art on l9th century European painting. These cross-cultural exchanges have recently been the subjects of blockbuster exhibits in New York City museums: Japan House and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Topics are cross-referenced throughout the TPR series. For instance, we return to fashion from a different perspective in our High Intermediate text with “ Fashion Forward: Styles From the Street.” “Top Athletes on Tiptoe” and “Don’t Mess with Stress” in an earlier edition are complemented by “Tales From a Yoga Menagerie” in the current Basic, 2nd Ed. Animals both mythical and real walk, fly and run through our TPR series. Some titles are “Hairy Heroes and Furry Friends,” featuring Hachiko; “Animal Play: It’s Not Just Fun and Games,” and “Hamlet, the Homeless Dog.”
New topics in Basic 2nd ed. reflect current commitments to the environment and social change by students on campuses around the world. “Take the Challenge: Go Green,” opens with a provocative photograph of a student-designed “Garbage Dress” that motivates students’ pre-reading. In contrast, Chapter 1 of Basic, 2nd ed., “Crossing Borders: Stolen Treasures and Interpol” takes the reader into a world of intrigue and crime. News services are currently reporting similar “heists.” Such articles can be found online easily and incorporated into classroom Reading assignments. Certainly the court testimony of one art thief’s mother, who claimed to have burned her son’s loot to protect him from prosecution, would provide an interesting Reading supplement. Today the Internet is a valuable resource for making the ELT classroom truly interactive.
The closing selection in the newest text, “A Dog of Flanders: An Enduring Masterpiece” relates to Japan in a special way. This tale of a boy and his dog has captivated Japanese audiences for generations. We recently discovered the Japanese affinity for media, print and film versions on a visit to Antwerp, where the great Cathedral provides the setting for the tragic conclusion of this poignant story. Our photograph of a Japanese tour in the Cathedral underscores this surprising cross-cultural attachment.